I worried that I’d be too tired to go see the play I’d committed to seeing last weekend. It was a school weekend for me, which meant that I’d be in classes for almost eleven hours, classes that are intense and emotional and engaging. And yet, I felt so drawn to the play that I decided to push past the wall of tiredness and see it anyway. I walked the short distance to see The Balcony at The Old Mint in a windstorm, which seemed to appropriately set the stage for the ominous, slightly surreal play.
I’d been to The Old Mint once before, to see a lecture with my sister on sustainable gardening when the building had first reopened to the public. I was mesmerized then by the unique architecture of this historic space, with its cavernous rooms and dungeon-like vaults and labyrinth of doors opening one space onto another onto another into a courtyard. There couldn’t have been a better space picked for this play that is immersive without being interactive (a key point, because I love to be right-up-in-the-thick-of-it but definitely wasn’t in the mood to interact as a part of the theater).
The play begins in the rooms in the basement where gold used to be stored in the days when this was a money vault. Four different scenes happen simultaneously and the viewers get to wander from room to room at their own whim. I was a little worried about this part because I had mixed reactions to a similar set-up at a Speakeasy-themed play last year. I loved that one in the end but it took awhile to adjust to moving about without direction. In this case, the vignettes stood on their own and I didn’t feel pressure to catch every scene of The Balcony’s four starting scenes. Additionally, the cast of characters that weren’t in the scenes were available in the hallway to quickly direct viewers to the spots they might want to check out next. The thirty minutes went quickly and I enjoyed stepping in and out of various scenes.
Truth be told, I might not have known exactly what those scenes were about if it weren’t for the handy program that provided me with that information. The combination of walking in and out of scenes with the old-fashioned language made catching the nuances of the plot difficult. But I think that would have been the case had the play taken place in a more linear fashion on a traditional stage as well and this setting worked better because it offered a close-up, intriguing look at the set and costumes and characters. It was a good experience.
The group was then ushered upstairs and the following five longer scenes took place one after the other, allowing the story to unfold and become clearer as the time went on. Mind you, it’s a French play written more than 100 years ago, so it’s not clear in the way that a contemporary play is clear, but the story of a revolution, the play-within-a-play, the specific characters’ stories all do become clear. Each scene takes place in a different room so the whole group of viewers comes into the room, led by costumed ushers who generally fit well into the scene.
I have to say that I loved the costumes of this play. Some of them (the dress of the Queen, for example) reminded me of couture wearable art that you might see at a DeYoung fabric / fashion exhibit. Others were more handcrafted and cheesy but in a way that worked. Streetwear was combined with unique artistic elements that were eye-catching and interesting.
The caliber of the actors is also notable. Not that I’ve ever questioned that here in San Francisco where we have amazing small theatre groups. Still, there were several characters in this play that really stood out as amazing actors. Irma, the Queen, was seductive and powerful. Carmen was glorious in tall heels and extravagant facial expressions. Sometimes the actors cast into specific roles were unpredictable, seeming to reflect the make-up of San Francisco’s diversity in a way that worked for this play. See the full cast here.
The final scene plays out in a large room that looks out onto a courtyard and a portion of the scene is actually watched through the windows. It’s a unique experience. If you want to see a unique historic play in a unique historic building (a building that you really should visit even if for some reason you don’t make it to the play), The Balcony runs Th-Sat this weekend and next weekend. Tickets here.